Sometimes you want a day hike to be just a bit… more. More of a workout, more of an adventure. The Great Smoky Mountains is full of hikes that will test your dedication (and your legs!) and offer incredible views along the way. Whether you’re heading up an old fire tower for panoramic mountain views or traversing a waterfall, you’ll get to spend some much-needed time in the wilderness on these challenging hiking trails.
1. Mt. Sterling via Baxter Creek Trail
This trail earns its difficulty level thanks to a long, steady ascent–almost 4,200 feet of elevation gain over 6 miles–and length (the total trail is about 12 miles round trip). It’s definitely an all-day hike, and you’ll want to get an early start if you want to make the most of it. The trail winds through the shaded old-growth forests for miles as it ascends Mt. Sterling. At the summit, climb to the top of a 60-foot fire tower for panoramic views of the surrounding area. This trail is well-maintained and clearly marked, but expect a couple of creek crossings along the way. Looking for an even bigger adventure? Reserve a backcountry camping spot and spend the night.
There are multiple ways to access the Rockytop summit, but our favorite route takes the Lead Cove Trail. Rated “hard” on Alltrails, this out-and-back trail gains 3,800 feet in elevation on the way to the summit. The gain is gradual, though, fairly evenly spread over the six miles to the summit. You’ll encounter several creek crossings along the way, but it is usually possible to keep your feet dry. Many hikers recommend trekking poles, which make the descent much easier.
3. Mount Leconte via Rainbow Falls Trail
This trail is legendary among avid Smoky Mountains hikers. The first two miles take you to Rainbow Falls, a gorgeous waterfall that boasts a rainbow at the right time of day. The trail up to Rainbow Falls is a popular one; expect it to be fairly heavily trafficked. After the falls, the crowd thins considerably, and you’ll find yourself skirting boulders, scrambling across creeks, and traversing old-growth forest paths for another 11 miles as you make your way up the mountain. At the summit are gorgeous panoramic views and the Leconte Lodge, where you can obtain some snacks (or rent a cabin for the night, if you’ve been fortunate enough to snag one well in advance). This trail is easier going up than down, as it can be very slippery at times; many hikers say that trekking poles are a must for the descent.
4. Gregory Ridge Trail to Gregory Bald
This trail begins where Forge Creek Road ends, and it traverses 11.6 miles of wilderness up to Gregory Bald. This is considered a challenging route for most hikers; the climb isn’t steep, but it is a steady, significant uphill: 3,300 feet in elevation gain over five miles. The summit is bald, as you might expect; it’s a large grassy area atop the summit, offering surreal, austere views of the surrounding mountains and the perfect picnic opportunity (a well-deserved picnic after such a long climb).
5. Mount Cammerer via Low Gap Trail
Another long day hike, plan to set aside 6-8 hours to complete this trail that summits Mount Cammerer in grand style. This is the shortest route to the summit of Mount Cammerer, making it steeper than the alternatives. It’s also one of the least-crowded trails to the summit, which can be refreshing amidst a heavily-traveled trail system. The Low Gap Trail intersects the Appalachian Trail at one point; when you reach it, you’ll want to take a left, which leads to a rather steep climb the rest of the way to the summit. At the top, you’ll find a gorgeous old stone fire tower built alongside the rocky summit; it looks a bit like a snapshot from a fantasy book nestled in the mountains.
Each of the summits also offers alternate routes to the top, so if you’re not sold on these specific trails, chances are good you can find slightly different alternatives. Always bring plenty of water along and a backcountry map, and pace yourself on these longer climbs. At a slow enough pace, even the most challenging hiking trails are doable for those in moderately good physical shape–and they make for memories you’ll never forget.